I was sure we would catch something. How could we not, armed with the latest in fly fishing technology: strong flexible rods, lines tapered at the tip to delicately land the fly and a selection of flies resembling everything from salmon eggs to mayflys?
Four of us—all women—were heading to the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC, where salmon are still plentiful and lakes and rivers abundant. More precisely, we were going to Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, a luxury “camp” accessible only by floatplane or boat for a fly fishing weekend. If the fish didn’t bite, we would at least be pampered and well fed.
Learning to cast on the gravelled shore of the Bedwell River our first afternoon was initially surprising. How could my arm be sore after just 10 minutes? But once we got the hang of it—a short, sharp movement that allows more line out with each “false” cast—the pain disappeared and our guides praised our light touch.
“If this was a group of men, I’m not kidding, they’d be slamming their lines into the water,” said Dino, watching us approvingly. We beamed, thinking of the stories we’d be telling our husbands in a few days’ time.
The next morning we head up the valley on horseback, through old-growth forest, lush ferns and waist-high salal. We look up in awe at the towering trees… and look down in trepidation at the size of the cougar prints on the sandy river bank. “He’s a big boy,” says Dino.
“You’ll think you’re in Jurassic Park,” John Caton, the managing director, had told us before we’d left.
“Reel” women aren’t scaredy cats; we’ve already seen a large black bear from horseback. And earlier this morning, we noted the soccer ball-sized hole that a bear had made in the lodge last night when he tried to force his way into the freezer room through a vent.
The Ursus River—how appropriately named—is beautiful to behold. Large pools of turquoise water, surely the bluest water this side of the Caribbean, lie next to emerald green banks of moss. The water is so clear, we can see fish swimming on the far shore, maybe 10 m away.
Wading into what appears to be a knee-deep pool quickly finds me up to my chest in frigid water. I struggle to hold my camera high and dry. Dino has warned us that slipping under is the biggest risk of fly fishing, especially if you forget the belt that keeps water from filling your waders, should you fall in.
I wonder, would drowning in a beautiful, pristine river be any less horrific than drowning in some mudhole? Not wanting to find out, I put my camera on shore and tighten my belt.
We’ve barely begun fishing when Kelly, a blue-eyed blonde writer from New York City, reminds us that she has a massage appointment back at the lodge in a couple hours.
“You can get a massage at home,” Alice tells her bluntly. “We’re here to fish.” Alice, from Maryland, is old enough to be Kelly’s mother and has stressed the importance of catching something before the weekend is over.
“I’m here for the spa treatments as well as the fishing,” Kelly counters politely.
The guides huddle; they decide Kelly will return early while Alice, Lynn, an experienced fly fisher from Phoenix, AZ, and I continue to fish. We don’t cheer, but we know the odds of catching a fish are greater the fewer people are fishing. “See ya later, Kelly,” we say.
Our odds may have improved, but the fish aren’t biting. If we can see them, they can likely see us. Our only consolation is spending a golden September afternoon in one of the prettiest spots on earth. I’m reminded of the fly fishers’ line that fish don’t live in ugly places.
On our final morning, we fly to a mountain lake where hundreds of salmon will be waiting for rain before heading upriver to spawn. Cutthroat trout, which eat the salmon eggs and their dying flesh, will abound. It will be child’s play.
We cast and cast. We change flies. A swarm of no-see-‘ems finds us. I tangle my line in the bush behind me. I cast erratically and catch the back of my head with my hook. The wooly bugger simulating a leech on the end of my line is now simply the bugger.
Then—success! Lynne catches a trout. It’s a silver-and-black speckled beauty, about a foot long. An hour later Alice squeals, then lands her own. “Awesome” she says with a grin, and releases the trout back into the cold mountain stream.